20+ books I READ in 2018: A growing list

Review: 'The Overstory' by Richard Powers

Credit: WBUR

Credit: WBUR

"The best arguments in the world won't change a person's mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story."

I was only ten pages in when I began fantasizing about the kinds of words I'd choose to illustrate the lingering pangs of Powers' hypnotizing prose. 

Dreading its end, I found myself constricting my own reading time to 20 or so pages in one sitting.

"This. What we have been given. What we must earn. This will never end."

"It's a book about trees, but like, a lot more than that," I'd tell friends, shaming myself as the words slipped off my tongue. I know, I know. What's more than trees?

I'm no climate crusader, and that's an understatement. In fact, when we first moved from the concrete jungle of New York City to Georgia, I relentlessly complained about the majestic, towering oaks overwhelming the state, the only grievance I could muster up after leaving behind the multicultural home I'd grown to love for the South and its cunningly charming facade, as it's often viewed from up above.

And I didn't grow up in a home of sustainability ethics, either. One part of me still believes it's a luxury to be able to prioritize the Earth before your own kin, your own now. Today, I'm at war with myself, aghast by an ignorance I was too ignorant to embrace.

"People see better what looks like them,” Patricia Westerford, one of nine characters at the center of this epic, says. True. So, she shows us trees as human as ever. She tells us how trees, too, talk to each other. They trade, they have sex, experience pain, remember. They're highly aware, intelligent. Like the apex species humans believe they are, but aren't.

The nine cast members — not to be mistaken with the true heroes of the novel: trees — are each introduced with equally compelling storylines:  A Vietnam War Air Force vet turned eco-activist after a banyan tree saves his life; an impulsive college student who electrocutes herself and comes back to life with a renewed vision; an Indian immigrant scientist confined to his wheelchair inspired by the death of one world to become the master of another digital sphere; an Irish-Norwegian artist from a long line of farmers who inherits spellbinding photographic portraits of a beloved chestnut tree and a Chinese engineer, daughter of immigrants, who falls in love with her father's Mulberry bush, loses it to homicide and, then, loses her father to suicide. Then there's the couple who seemed lost, stuck and hopeless until they found their forest, and the forest found them. A psychologist who studies how humans only understand things that speak to them. And lastly, the tree-lover academic from birth, who tries, fails and tries again to convince us all to open our ears to the green gods around us, aching the way a grandmother yearns for her distant grandchild: "Listen. There's something you need to hear."

“Buddha’s words: A tree is a wondrous thing that shelters, feeds, and protects all living things. It even offers shade to the axmen who destroy it.”

Five stars.

Take a look around, when you get a minute to spare. Inhale the exhales of Georgia's buckeyes, magnolias, its presidential oaks and, my personal favorite, the underrated, dependable trident maple that's withstood more pain than most.

Other reviews:
They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib
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The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'The Hate U Give' by Angie Thomas

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“Pac said Thug Life stood for The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody. T-H-U-G-L-I-F-E. Meaning what society gives us as youth, it bites them in the ass when we wild out. Get it?” - Angie Thomas, "The Hate U Give"

It was, unfortunately, relevance and timeliness that led me to this young adult novel by Angie Thomas, which tells the story of a 16-year-old girl grappling with police violence against black Americans.

I hadn't read a YA novel in years, and I'll admit, adjusting to the literary style was more challenging than I'd expected. But keeping the intended audience in mind (teens), I feel this is a masterpiece of a cultural novel, packed with raw realities, gut-punching one-liners, an overwhelming sense of grief and hopelessness — and glimmers of faith, silver linings you really, really have to want to see.

Like Chris. The perfect white ally. Or Maverick, who realizes his innate desire to protect his community may be putting his own children at risk. Or Maya, who could easily empathize with the experiences of a fellow person of color without living through them. Another silver lining: Young readers of this novel who may have never felt they could relate, will undoubtedly be pulled in through Starr's magnetic first-person perspective. It's impossible not to feel her ache, her strength, her anger and be completely inspired by her ability to continue to smile at the little things. The fight continues, and so must life.

Perhaps the most jarring element of this novel is its blatant reflection of reality. "I can't breathe." The ode to the too many young black men and women whose lives we only recently lost, names we used to shout in the streets, names that have now turned into whisper-chants. Names we can't afford to mute.

Four stars.

Other reviews:
- They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us by Hanif Abdurraqib

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza

Review: 'They Can't Kill Us Until They Kill Us' by Hanif Abdurraqib

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I picked up this book on recommendation from a friend whose craft I've admired for years, and for years before that, whose perception I'd respected from a digital distance.

It spans nearly 300 pages of essays from poet and cultural critic Hanif Abdurraqib. The Village Voice's Greil Marcus says, "Not a day has sounded the same since I read him." And I must echo his sentiments, for Abdurraqib's perspective, at times both nuanced and familiar, adds electricity to ink. Power to prose. The sting lingers long after his final word.

I think of Carly Rae Jepson and want to fall in love, yet I can't name you any of her songs. I spin my only Nina Simone record and ache for American blackness. I pridefully smirk at the sound of Fleetwood Mac and the currency of heartbreak. I play "Hurt Me Soul" by Lupe Fiasco and breathe a burden of religion without feeling rightfully religious. I revel in the dominance of Serena Williams, "the woman who buried a sister with the same hands she uses to bury opponents." I commiserate with Pete Wentz and Patrick Stump and scream #FallOutBoyForever as I battle my own war with depression, examining myself from the inside, from the outside and from the inside again. I know what it means when "a place to belong" only fits on a sliding scale and how ingenuine public mourning can feel. I see that some are taught to run toward guns for survival, yet you and I have been taught to run from them. I think of the Paris attacks and feel a dagger through my chest, and trace over that permanent stamp on my forehead. My activism, too, is at its best when it takes time to laugh over FaceTime with a beloved friend the morning after a massacre, "because it allows me, even briefly, to imagine a world where that happiness can still freely and comfortably exist."

Some of the pages where Abdurraqib's "Fear in Two Winters" and "On Paris" are printed are now slightly crisped with teardrops. I had been waiting some hundred pages for the mention of Islam.

"There are few things like being feared simply due to having a body. There is no way to easily come to terms with this."

Excerpts from "Fear in Two Winters," "On Paris" and "They Will Speak Loudest of You After You've Gone":

"The distance between curiosity and fear is tragically short. They are, like sleep and death, within the same family, a quick nudge pushing one directly into the other. Because it has been so long, what people maybe don't remember about Muslims before September 11 is that there was always curiosity that felt like it could take a sharp turn into fear at any time."

"By the time I got to college, I had largely stopped practicing Islam...I was making the curious parts of myself invisible in the hopes that curiosity never turned to fear. When I look back now, I find it amazing that I didn't imagine the path that the September 11 attacks would set us down, and how that path would open up the door to global violences against Muslims. The greatest emotional impact on Americans toward American Muslims is that it took curiosity out of the timeline. There was now only fear, turning rapidly to anger."

"The U.S. ignored the Geneva Convention, raping, sodomizing, and torturing prisoners of war at their black site bases around the world. The military bombed wedding parties consisting mostly of women and children in Iraq at Mukaradeeb, and in Afghanistan at Wech Baghtu and Deh Bala. Here, we are saying that we will tear your country apart, we will give birth to the terror within, and then we will leave you to drown in it."

"I glimpsed, for a small moment, what it might be like to consider someone I didn't know as less valuable living. And the impossible weight of it all."

Four stars.

Unapologetically yours,
Fiza